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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 05:54 GMT 06:54 UK
The city that got its soul back
by Bryony Jones
BBC News, Bath

For almost 30 years, Bath has been a city without a soul.

The city draws visitors from across the world, but the thermal springs on which Bath was founded have been off-limits since the 1970s, their mineral-enriched waters - and reputed 'healing powers' - wasted.

The rooftop pool at the new Bath Spa
The rooftop pool boasts views across the city

Residents and tourists have been unable to do any more than taste the sulphurous liquid at the Roman Baths.

Those more used to the spa towns of continental Europe have been left perplexed at the lack of an opportunity to bathe in a city whose name is derived from that very pursuit.

"Bath would not exist were it not for the hot springs," said local councillor Nicole O'Flaherty, one of the spa's most vocal supporters.

"But for the past 20 or so years - for the first time in 1,200 years - the people of Bath have not been able to use their springs."

The thermal springs, which produce some 1.2 million litres of hot water every day, were closed off in 1978 amid fears over the safety of the water source after a woman died of Legionnaires' Disease.

The listed buildings which had housed the various spas fell into disrepair and the city built on its spring lost some of its purpose.

Millennium project

In the intervening years, five attempts were made to rejuvenate and reopen the thermal waters to the public, but each eventually failed, until the city hit upon the idea of doing so as a millennium project.

But as costs spiralled to 45m, three times over the original budget, and planned opening dates came and went, many residents of the city - whose council tax money was being used to fund the scheme - lost heart.

"The whole thing's been a bit of a catastrophe really," said local resident Christine Hawkins.

"It has really annoyed me that they have spent so much on it."

A painter adding final touches to Bath's new spa
Staff have been busy with the final touches

Squabbles between Bath and North East Somerset Council and builders Mowlem turned into full-blown rows, which went all the way to the High Court, delayed work even further.

But now the wait is over.

The pools have been filled, although the steam room smelled of turpentine rather than the delicate scent of lavender, jasmine and eucalyptus as the final work was being completed.

Contractors have been busy with the finishing touches, lifeguards have been trying out the rooftop pool and beauty therapists have been practising their reiki massage and hot stone therapy.

Listed buildings

Charlotte Hanna, spokeswoman for the complex's operators, Thermae Bath Spa, said it was a very exciting time.

"We are really looking forward to welcoming our first customers and are just eager to get on with it."

And, for Nicole O'Flaherty at least, it has been worth the wait.

"It is like waking from a nightmare to see the finished building, how fantastic it is.

"In the middle of a World Heritage site, as well as restoring five listed buildings, we now have an unashamedly modern building, an iconic building."

What makes Bath's water so special:
Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate

But Christine Hawkins said she had reservations that the building design was not the right choice.

"The building doesn't really go with Bath - the city is Roman or Georgian - this looks really out of place, it doesn't fit in.

"I don't know if it will really benefit us - I think it's more for the tourists.

"It's not something which appeals to me personally, but then I've lived here all my life and I've never been to the Roman Baths."

However Hotelier Matthew Stevenson said he was convinced: "Bath is a busy city anyway, it is very popular with people looking for short breaks, but the spa will mean we can really offer the complete package."

Special place

Visitor numbers to Bath, particularly from the US, have declined in recent years, and it is hoped the new spa will increase tourism.

Nicole O'Flaherty said: "Tourism is a very important factor in the city's economy - it brings in 400m a year... so it is vital to make sure tourists keep coming to the city."

A tourist sign showing the direction to the new Bath spa
Whether the spa will be top of tourists' must-see lists is unknown

But it may take time to convince them to return, after a host of building problems and rows between the council and contractors saw the complex's opening date delayed time and time again.

Mr Stevenson, manager of the Abbey Hotel, said: "We've had people coming to stay with us for years, asking what time the spa opens, and we have had to say, 'Well, it will be a few years yet'."

"Being a spa town without a spa has been something of an issue, obviously."

The city will get its spa back on Monday, August 7, and while people may not be queuing around the corner to get in just yet, the spa has been inundated with bookings.

"I hope it will create a greater pride in what is already a very beautiful, special place," said Charlotte Hanna.

"I hope it will raise awareness of the importance of our heritage, because the thermal waters flowing under the streets of Bath are the lifeblood of the city."

Nicole O'Flaherty said: "We could have done no end of projects for the millennium."

"But this is simply perfect for Bath - it reconnects the city with its soul."

A look inside Bath Spa

Timeline: Spa saga highs and lows
31 Jul 06 |  Somerset
In Pictures: Bath's spa unveiled
31 Jul 06 |  In Pictures
New dawn for troubled Bath Spa?
13 May 05 |  Somerset
Spa saga bubbling with resentment
08 Feb 05 |  Somerset

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